by Edward Simonds
Chapter 1: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 2: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 3: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 4: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 5: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 6: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | Chapter 7: I | II | III | IV |
V. EDGAR ALLAN POE: 1809-1849.
Four and a half years after the date of Hawthorne's birth, there was born in Boston another child of eccentric genius, -- like the lonely orphaned boy in Salem destined to literary fame as a dreamer of romance, -- and, alas, destined also to a career unique in the history of American letters for its brevity, its pathos, and its tragedy.
Edgar Allan Poe was born January 19, 1809. That his birth occurred in Boston was due to the fact that his parents, members of a theatrical company, were filling an engagement in that city when the event occurred. David Poe, the father of the child, was a Southerner, a native of Baltimore, where the Poes were people of character and standing. Connection with the parental home had ceased, however, when the young man had recklessly pushed his law-books aside for an uncertain career upon the stage. He was never a brilliant actor; the lady whom he married was by far his superior in their profession, and possessed the more vigorous personality of the two. It was from his mother that Edgar inherited his artistic temperament; while the prevailing weaknesses of the boy's later life, it is safe to assert, were a natural inheritance from his father. Within a year of Edgar's birth, his father died, and a year or two later Mrs. Poe also died, at Richmond, Virginia, in poverty, leaving three young children to the charity of friends. A Mrs. Allan, wife of a tobacco merchant of Richmond, had become interested in the suffering family, and took Edgar into her home.
The Adopted Child.
The black-eyed, curly-haired boy, handsome and precocious, soon won his way into the affections of Mr. and Mrs. Allan. He was given the name of his foster parents, was made the pet of the household, and treated with a degree of indulgence far from wise. One of his accomplishments was the ability to declaim childish speeches before the dinner guests, when the table was cleared for dessert, and to pledge the health of the company in wine -- "with roguish grace."
In 1815, Mr. Allan went to England, taking his family with him. Edgar, then six years old, was placed in the Manor House School, in a suburb of London, and there he remained five years. The associations of this period left a strong and not unpleasant impression on the boy's memory; they are recalled with some detail in the story William Wilson. At this old and typical English school, the youth was brought in contact with much that was ancient, with many reminders of great historic characters and events. He studied Latin and French, participated in all out-door sports, and, before the close of his residence, had begun to write occasional verse. The principal of the school had "remarked nothing in Edgar Allan, as he was called, except that he was clever, but spoilt by `an extravagant amount of pocket money.'"
Upon the return of the family to America in 1820, the boy continued his studies at a private school in Richmond, where he appeared to be a quick and brilliant pupil, although not always steady or accurate in scholarship. He excelled in athletics, was a skillful boxer and a daring swimmer; having, it is said, one hot June day, swum six miles in the James River, against a strong tide. Like Byron, he was very proud of this accomplishment.
The University of Virginia had been opened under the patronage of Thomas Jefferson in 1825. At the beginning of 1826, Poe, then seventeen, placed his name upon the register of students. In the convivial atmosphere of undergraduate fellowship, habits of irresponsibility and reckless indulgence were easily acquired. To such habits this proud, impulsive, and highly strung youth was especially susceptible. At the same time there was a reserve and a self-absorption that checked intimacy. His classmates hardly knew him except as a person of high spirit. His favorite diversion was to wander off for a long, solitary ramble among the outlying hills of the Ragged Mountains, giving rein to his fancy and returning to his associates with some wild romance, -- story or poem, -- which he would recite for their pleasure. He was fairly regular in attendance on the exercises, and at the end of the year secured honors in French and Latin. He had also, unfortunately, accumulated gambling debts to a large amount, and when the year closed, Mr. Allan withdrew Poe from the University, refused to pay the debts thus incurred, and set the young man at work in his counting-room. Smarting under a sense of injustice in the severity of his foster father's treatment, Poe ran away to Boston and enlisted in the army under the name of E.A. Perry. But he first secured the publication of his earliest volume, Tamerlane and Other Poems, which appeared in the spring of 1827.
The Army and West Point.
Poe's record in the service was an honorable one. In two years' time he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant-major, for merit. Then occurred the death of Mrs. Allan, and this brought a reconciliation. Mr. Allan secured Edgar's release from the service in January, 1829, and not long thereafter obtained his appointment as a cadet in the military academy at West Point. Poe entered the academy in July, and for a time performed his duties with credit. Then he became discontented and despondent, neglected all obligations, was court-martialed and dismissed, in January, 1831. This made the breach with Mr. Allan complete and final.
A second edition of his poems had been published by Poe at Richmond, while waiting for his appointment to the academy in 1829. There had been additions to the volume issued at Boston, two years before. Al Aaraaf, a vague and mystical poem, the longest of Poe's compositions, was added to the first collection. It reflects the influence of Shelley, as the earlier poem, Tamerlane, suggests the influence of Byron. After the dismissal from West Point, a third edition, entitled simply Poems (1831), was brought out by Poe in New York. Here were included some of his finest compositions: To Helen, Israfel, The City in the Sea, Lenore, and The Valley of Unrest. Already his verse had acquired its haunting music -- already found its note of melancholy.
Now began Poe's struggle with fate. The panorama of his "most stormy life" is a lurid one. A hurried glimpse will be sufficient. For two or three years he made his home in Baltimore with his father's sister, Mrs. Clemm. He wrote for magazines and did all kinds of literary hackwork. The romantic tales were now begun, and one of these, MS. found in a Bottle, secured, in 1833, a prize of one hundred dollars offered by a weekly literary paper in Baltimore. This success brought Poe some timely friends who helped him to an editorial position on the Southern Literary Messenger at a salary of $500. This magazine was published at Richmond, whither Poe now returned.
To the Messenger Poe contributed a few tales and poems, none of which is now recognized as of more than minor importance. But it was as a critic that Poe now startled the readers -- and the writers -- of that day. There had been some attempts at literary criticism by American writers before this; an article by Bryant in the North American Review, in 1818, has already been mentioned, and there were some literary studies written about the same time by Richard Henry Dana, which are properly termed critical; but there had been no such outspoken and vigorous reviews as were now produced by Poe. The noteworthy fact concerning them is not that they were trenchant, but that they were based upon certain definite principles of criticism, formulated by Poe, and consistently followed by him in his own literary work. It is an evidence of the intellectual versatility of the poet that he appears conspicuously in this field also -- and as a pioneer. The Literary Messenger now came to be recognized as one of the leading magazines of the country, if not the foremost; and Poe's prospects appeared very bright. In 1836 he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, the beautiful and talented child-wife -- then not quite fourteen years of age -- whom with passionate devotion the poet loved and cherished until her pathetic and miserable death in 1847. But the journalistic career which had begun so promisingly was interrupted by the habits of indulgence which were to prove the ruin of Poe. In January, 1837, he lost his position on the Messenger and removed to New York. In 1838, he published his longest story, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
Philadelphia now seemed to offer Poe a better opportunity for success; and, in the summer of 1838, he proceeded thither. Here the poet seems to have made a successful effort to recover his self-control. For a long period he appears to have refrained altogether from the use of wine.
This is the period of Poe's strongest work. The Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque were published in two volumes at the end of 1839 -- two years after the appearance of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales. In his critical reviews of this period, Poe is even more independent and emphatic than in the Messenger articles. He made a notorious attack upon Longfellow, repeated at various times, charging the New England poet with gross plagiarism. While longfellow bore Poe's attacks with unfailing equanimity, this was not the case with all who suffered; not a few of his victims became bitter personal enemies of the imperious reviewer.
The Analytical Tales.
Poe now enters a new field of fiction, of which he may be regarded as the discoverer; this is the story in which a mystery is apparently solved by analysis and reason. The modern detective story is our present popular example of the type. Poe's analytical powers were remarkable. When the opening chapters of Dickens's novel Barnaby Rudge appeared, Poe forecast from them the entire plot of the novel. The solution of papers written in cipher (cryptographs) was a favorite pastime with him. He declared that no one could invent a cipher that he could not solve; and at one period he was kept busy deciphering specimens of enigmatic productions of this sort. It was in 1841 that Poe's masterpiece in this kind of fiction, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, appeared. This was followed by another narrative, The Mystery of Marie Roget, in which the author applied his method in the study of an actual murder mystery which occurred in New York. In 1843 was published The Gold Bug, the third in this group of realistic narratives, the most popular of all his tales. This, also, was a competitive story and brought its writer a second one-hundred-dollar prize.
Again an Editor.
Again Poe enjoyed unusual advantages. In 1839, he became associate editor of Burton's Magazine, one of the most successful periodicals of the time. But he quarreled with his principal and lost his position before the close of 1840. Within a month or two, however, he had been made the editor of Graham's Magazine, as important a publication as Burton's; and then, for some irregularity the nature of which is unknown, again he was discharged. Although all evidence indicates that Poe had fairly conquered his old vice of intemperance during these years, there is unhappily other evidence that he was using opium. The main cause of his journalistic failures, however, probably lay in the temperament of the man himself. Eccentric, irritable, self-willed, as audacious in his treatment of others as he was sensitive to their treatment of him, it is not strange that this singular man, who did not lack admirers or friends, was unable to retain business associations with them. In society, when he chose to enter it, both in Philadelphia and later in New York, he was a marked figure. He was often serious and silent; but his broad and pallid brow, large piercing eyes, his gracious manner when he did converse, and his remarkably melodious voice gave a peculiar charm to his presence. In his home, to both wife and mother, he was the embodiment of kindness and tenderness.
In New York.
From Philadelphia, the Poes removed to New York in 1844, and the struggle for existence became acute. In the course of the first year of residence in New York, Poe made the acquaintance of Willis, the most popular and most influential member of the Knickerbocker group. Willis at once made a place for Poe on his paper, the Evening Mirror. Thus it was that in this paper, in January, 1845, Poe published The Raven. The appearance of this poem -- perhaps the most widely known of all American poems -- gave Poe a national reputation. It was copied in well-nigh every newspaper in the land. Again the future looked bright for one whom people now hailed as the foremost among American poets. The Tales were re-published. All of his poetical compositions that he wished to preserve were collected and published under the title of The Raven, and Other Poems. Moreover he had become in this year, 1845, editor and proprietor of the Broadway Journal. But with the close of the year the Journal was abandoned, and Poe was left with a substantial debt.
In 1846, the family was established in a little cottage of the humblest description at Fordham, now in the borough of the Bronx, then not within the limits of the city. Mrs. Clemm had become -- and not for the first time -- the mainstay of the household. Virginia was dying with consumption. Poe himself was broken in health. Half insane with anxiety and grief, he had lapsed into the old excesses. Before the year closed they were in absolute destitution. The death of Virginia occurred in January, 1847, under conditions too painful to be described.
The two years which followed were pitiable enough. After the poet had in a measure recovered his shattered health, he employed himself in various efforts without much success. He wrote a long and elaborate essay, which he called Eureka; it was an attempt to explain the existence of the universe. He thought that he had solved the mystery of creation. But these conceptions of his erratic imagination have no scientific value. Of more worth are the poems, written during this period, Ulalume, he Bells, For Annie, and Annabel Lee, -- this last-named ballad a poignant memory of the child-wife, Virginia. In 1849, Poe was again in Richmond, hoping to get aid to establish a new magazine. On the last day of September he departed on his return to New York, and stopped over in Baltimore to see some friends. He was drinking heavily. On the 3d of October -- it being an election day -- Poe was found, unconscious and in wretched plight, in a rear room of a rum-shop, used as a polling-place. Friends were summoned and the unfortunate man was conveyed to a hospital. On the 7th of October, without regaining his senses, he died -- dismally. His last words were: "Lord help my poor soul!" The next morning, five friends of the poet followed his body to its cheerless burial in the old cemetery of Westminster Church.
Such in outline is the tragic story of Edgar Allan Poe. To add to these details would be to emphasize its sordid aspects rather than to brighten it. The blighted career, the disastrous climax of his misfortune can excite but one feeling -- a profound pity for this unhappy soul,
"whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore."
Yet over this strange personality critics have contended more fiercely than over any other in our literary annals. At the same time we may say that no American poet lives more vividly in the memory of his countrymen than Edgar Allan Poe; nor is there any other that in the eye of Europe ranks as high as he. Already before his death, French writers had detected in Poe's works a quality that appealed strongly to their artistic sense; his poems and tales were translated into their language, later into Spanish and German also. To the present time, Germany, Spain, and France regard the author of The Raven as the supreme representative of the West in literary art.
Let us look briefly at Poe's actual achievement, remembering -- if in volume his imaginative work appears disappointing -- that he died at forty; and that during the too brief years of his working life he was beset with weaknesses and embarrassed by failures such as occurred in the experience of no other American writer of first rank. His productions fall into three groups: the critical articles, the tales, and the poems.
Poe as a Critic.
Poe was, as has been said, a pioneer in this country in the field of serious criticism. As matter of fact, nearly half of his literary work is of this nature. Besides the pungent reviews of contemporary writers, the critical essays on The Rationale of English Verse and The Poetic Principle must not be forgotton. He was not always a sound critic; he was not infallible in his judgments, and in some of his attacks he was inspired by jealousy or prejudice. But it is remembered that he was one of the earliest to recognize the genius of Mrs. Browning and of Tennyson; that he applauded Dickens from the start; that he was one of the first to discover Hawthorne, and wrote warmly of his work -- although he later denied his originality and, characteristically, declared that Hawthorne had stolen some material from his own tale of William Wilson. For Lowell's verse Poe had nothing but praise; and Longfellow -- in spite of his own ill-tempered attack -- he placed at the head of American poets. He also noted the limitations of Irving, Cooper, and Bryant; and in much of his criticism he has been justified by time. The general effect of his critical work was apparently helpful in the development of American literature.
As a Romancer.
Poe wrote some seventy tales of greatly varying merit. These can be considered but briefly and in groups. We find, first narratives of romantic adventure, typified by MS. found in a Bottle, intense in its suggestions of the mysterious and unearthly. His longest piece of fiction, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, inspired, perhaps, by the popular success of Cooper's romances of the sea, is as realistic in its employment of commonplace and minute details as any of the narratives of Defoe, the first great master of realism in fiction. Poe's imaginative power is exhibited in vivid pictures of murder, mutiny, shipwreck, and starvation, which are gruesome enough, and sometimes become so morbid as to be offensive to sound taste; but in the conclusion of the tale his poetic imagination asserts itself in wonderful descriptions of an unknown land and of the mysterious white sea of the Antarctic. In A Descent into the Maelstrom, we have the finest example of this group, realistic, poetical, and thoroughly impressive. The Adventures of one Hans Pfaal, like the subsequent story, The Balloon Hoax, is based upon the possibilities, real and romantic, of aerial navigation, and is a prototype of such pseudoscientific fiction as the romances of Jules Verne. Poe makes a brave display of scientific knowledge in all these tales -- a knowledge which is superficial in fact, although effective in the machinery of his realism.
Another group contains the analytical tales, which Poe himself called "tales of ratiocination," because their appeal is to the reasoning faculty rather than to the emotions. The presentation of a mystery the solution of which is to follow is always fascinating, and Poe's dominion over his reader is nowhere more complete than in these tales. That the romancer, having first built up his mystery, is obviously only retracing his own steps in the working out of its solution, does not at all affect the interest of his story; for here his art is strong enough to produce the illusion that the reader is watching the first unraveling of the plot. The Gold Bug, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter still remain our best examples, at least in the short-story form, of this class of fiction.
Working more closely in the field cultivated by Hawthorne, Poe produced also a group of romantic tales in which conscience is the theme. William Wilson, the narrative of a man with a double, is the best; it might have been the suggestion of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Here are to be included, also, the horrible story of The Black Cat, The Tell-Tale Heart, and Thou art the Man. But Poe's most effective tales are those which are carefully, elaborately designed to produce a vivid effect on the reader's mind. Foremost among these is the remarkable fantasy The Fall of the House of Usher, a masterpiece of literary art, wherein every sentence is significant and almost every word a contribution to the dismal effect. Here belongs, also, The Masque of the Red Death, with its weird use of colors, its atmosphere of revelry invaded by the horror of the plague. Ligeia, a fantasy of transmigration, The Cask of Amontillado, a study in revenge, and Hop-Frog, in which the same theme again appears, grotesquely treated, fall in the same group. The morbid element is conspicuous in all. Death, horrible and ghastly, -- pestilence, -- dissolution, -- the awakening of the dead, -- the awakening of those prematurely buried: these are the instruments of horrible suggestiveness which are here employed. It is no wonder that one's flesh creeps as he reads -- that was in the design.
Poe had little of the sense of humor. He wrote, however, a number of extravaganzas with intent to make them humorous. In one, The Devil in the Belfry, he succeeded fairly. Another phase of his fancy is discovered in two beautiful landscape pictures, masterpieces of natural description, The Domain of Arnheim and Landor's Cottage, pure idealizations of romantic scenery worthy of a poet's dream.
As a Poet.
If the volume of Poe's verse is small, there is an unusual proportion of compositions that attain the perfection of form. The best of them are exquisite embodiments of Poe's own theories regarding his art. Poetry and music were allied in his mind, the aim in both to produce an impression. The poetical effect, he said, could be prolonged only to a certain limit; and that he placed at about one hundred lines. He had no sympathy with the idea that poetry should inculcate a moral; this idea he termed "the heresy of the Didactic," and soundly rated the New England poets for their inclination so to write. Poetry he defined as "the rhythmical creation of beauty." The poetic principle manifests itself "in an elevating excitement of the soul." In the service of beauty, Poe employed his art. We can easily name the titles of his most effective poems; they are the Song to Ligeia (in Al Aaraaf), the first To Helen, Israfel, The City in the Sea, The Coliseum, The Haunted Palace, The Conqueror Worm, Ulalume, For Annie, The Raven, The Bells, and Annabel Lee.
Poe's melodies are haunting ones. Sonorous words play an important part in the mechanics of his composition. Repetition, sometimes in the form of assonance, as in the line, --
"From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime;"
sometimes in the refrain, so effectively employed in The Raven; sometimes in the recurrence of the identical word, as in Dream-Land and in Ulalume, is used with marked musical effect. Poe makes artful use of melodious names, like Auber, Eldorado, Israfel, Ulalume, Lenore. There is wonderful charm in the rhythmic movement of Poe's verse, and there is also, for most readers, a charm in that omnipresent melancholy which pervades his poems. So characteristic is this last quality that Poe has been described -- "not as a single-poem poet, but the poet of a single mood."
Weird, mystical, unearthly,
"Out of Space -- out of Time,"
these compositions succeed in fulfilling the purpose of their author; they impress the mind with ideas of supernal beauty. They speak no message of hope or inspiration, they teach no lesson. In Poe's conception of his art, the poet as prophet had no place.
If Poe had a literary master, it was the author of Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge, more than any other poet, taught the author of Israfel and The Raven the secret of melodious verse and the fascination of the weird.
Suggestions for Reading.
Of Poe's tales, selections should be made so as to include the several types. The following will serve for the purpose: A Descent into the Maelstrom, The Gold Bug, The Murders of the Rue Morgue, William Wilson, The Fall of the House of Usher, Ligeia, Landor's Cottage, The Devil in the Belfry. These eight tales are fairly representative of Poe's best work in romance; having read these, the average reader will not need urging to increase the list. The student should make a study of the very impressive tale The Fall of the House of Usher. Let him examine, word by word, the careful composition of the introductory paragraph, heedfully noting the cumulative effect of the descriptive phrases, like: "dull, dark and soundless day"; "in the autumn of the year"; "when the clouds hung oppressively low"; "singularly dreary tract," etc., and also the iteration of the feeling evoked in the narrator, as expressed in terms like "insufferable gloom"; "utter depression of soul"; "unredeemed dreariness of thought." Then let him apply the same method to the study of the piece as a structure; and he will perceive something of the mechanics of Poe's masterpiece, as he clearly recognizes its marvelous effect.
Of the poems, The Raven, of course, calls for our first attention. Poe's article on The Philosophy of Composition will be found helpfully suggestive in studying the poem, although no one accepts seriously all that the author says regarding its composition. At least all of the twelve poems named in this text should be read, and the uniformity of tone and theme be noted.
The standard edition of Poe's Complete Works is the Virginia Edition, 17 vols., edited by James A. Harrison (Crowell, 1902). The Works, in 10 vols., edited by E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry, is also authoritative. The latest full biography is J. A. Harrison's Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903). G. E. Woodberry's Edgar Allan Poe (American Men of Letters Series) is the best critical biography. A briefer life of Poe by W. P. Trent, in the English Men of Letters Series, is announced. The sections upon Poe in Trent's American Literature, Richardson's American Literature, Wendell's Literary History of America, and Stedman's Poets of America are valuable for reference.
Chapter 1: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 2: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 3: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 4: I | II | III | IV | V | Chapter 5: I | II | III | IV | Chapter 6: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | Chapter 7: I | II | III | IV |
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